Monday, November 28, 2016

Happy "Official" Birthday Grand Ole Opry

It was 91 years ago tonight, Saturday November 28, 1925 that George D. Hay walked up to a microphone at WSM and introduced Uncle Jimmy Thompson. While there has been questions raised over the years, this is the date that has been proclaimed as the start of the WSM Barn Dance, later to be renamed the Grand Ole Opry.

George D. Hay gave the following account: "Because the Grand Ole Opry is a very simple program, it started in a very simple way. Your reporter, who was the first director of WSM, had considerable experience in the field of folk music when the station opened in October 1925. Realizing the wealth of folk music material and performers in the Tennessee Hills, he welcomed the appearance of Uncle Jimmy Thompson and his blue ribbon fiddle who went on the air at eight o'clock, Saturday night, November 28, 1925. Uncle Jimmy told us that he had a thousand tunes. Past eighty years of age, he was given a comfortable chair in front of an old carbon microphone. While his niece, Mrs. Eva Thompson Jones, played his piano accompaniment your reporter presented Uncle Jimmy and announced that he would be glad to answer requests for old time tunes. Immediately telegrams started to pour into WSM. One hour later at nine o'clock we asked Uncle Jimmy if he hadn't done enough fiddling to which he replied, 'Why shucks, a man don't get warmed up in an hour. I just won an eight-day fiddling contest down in Dallas, Texas, and here's my blue ribbon to prove it.' Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Mrs. Jones and The Solemn Old Judge carried on for several weeks for an hour each Saturday night."

This, of course, is George D. Hay's version. Some, specifically Mrs. Alcyone Bate Beasley, the daughter of Dr. Humphrey Bate, has claimed that it was her father that should get credit for being the originator of the Grand Ole Opry. Mrs. Beasley's has said that it was her father's group, of which she was a part of , that did the first Saturday night "barn dance" on WSM at the end of October 1925. Mrs. Beasley said in an interview, "I remember that night after it was over, and we drove back home in the old Ford car and Daddy, who always called me 'Booger,' said, 'Booger, we might've started something down there tonight, you just don't know.' We played there for about four or five weeks before Mr. Hay came. We would drive into Nashville and perform on WDAD in the afternoon, then we would walk up the hill and play on WSM later in the evening. I remember we would give Jack Keefe, who was the WSM announcer then, a list of the numbers we were going to play during the hour we would be on the air. And within just two weeks or so, bands from everywhere began to come up to be put on the air. One of the first of them was Mr. Ed Poplin's band from Lewisburg, Tennessee. I never felt badly about it toward Mr. Hay, because he wasn't well, but the fact remains that nothing was ever said about Uncle Jimmy Thompson being the first one on the show until long after my Daddy died in 1936."

Over the years, various researchers have found credence Mrs. Beasley's version of events. One piece of evidence is that on Sunday October 18, 1925, the Nashville Tennessean under the heading: "WSM Announces Weeks' Program": Saturday, 10-11 (p.m.) Studio program featuring Dr. Humphrey Bate and his string quartet of old-time musicians." That would have meant that they appeared on Saturday October 24, exactly as Mrs. Beasley stated. Further, Uncle Jimmy Thompson was never mentioned in the weekly radio program listing in the Tennessean until the December 20 issue, which listed his appearance for Saturday December 26 at 8:00 p.m.

At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter as back before any of us were around, WSM and the Opry decided that November 28, 1925 was the start of it all. So, on the occasion of the 91st anniversary of the Grand Ole Opry, congratulations are in order for the management and staff, along with all of the performers and members, past and present, on this historical milestone.


  1. Fred, Bismarck:

    Great post, Byron. As when witnesses report on a crime or accident, you're bound to get different versions of great historical events. Adds to the charm.

  2. I would say the Nashville Newspaper article archives are the most reliable source. Being a historian myself, nothing shakes things up than proving history wrong. You'd think the Opry would want to know the real story. But they don't seem to know much of their own history as it is. Was Chet Atkins a member? Hank Thompson? Slim Whitman? Lazy Jim Day? Some sources say yes, others do not. Was Elvis really told to go back to driving a truck? What year was GEORGE Jones made a member? If Jimmy Thompson was not the first performer, it wouldn't surprise me.

  3. Sid Harkreader was always very adamant that he was the first fiddle player to play on WSM radio. He wouldn't contradict Judge Hay's version of the story but pointed out that he played on WSM prior to that. Jack Keefe was the primary announcer on WSM in the first months of its existence and featured Dr. Bate and his band, Uncle Dave Macon and "Fiddlin' Sid" prior to Hay's arrival at the station but not in an organized format. Charles Wolfe said that there are more legends than facts about the Opry's early history but if you want a highly entertaining read I recommend finding a copy of his book, "A Good Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry".

    There is also a Facebook page devoted to Dr. Humphrey Bate and his Possum Hunters that has some interesting historical photos. It can found at

  4. Not to get on the Hall of Fame discussion but it's almost as if the CMHOF needs an "early influences" wing like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has (where people like Bill Monroe and Bob Wills are inducted.) People like Dr. Humphrey Bates, Fiddling Sid, Sam & Kirk McGee, Herman Crook all deserve to be honored and remembered for their pre-record industry contributions to country music. And it probably would have been a better place for Deford Bailey and Pop Stoneman. (oldtimeopry)

    1. I completly agree. At least make it a rotating category, like every 3 years. At the top of this list should be Bradley Kincaid. Others should be Dr. Bate, Gid Tanner & Riley Puckett, Fiddlin' John Carson, The McGees and Herman Crook.

  5. Fred, Bismarck:

    Amen to the above. Without the early success of those named above in the new commercial media of radio and records, it's doubtful any of the subsequent country-music history would have happened.